Last month’s Showcase Ontario conference packed the Metro Toronto Convention Centre full of Ontario Public Service workers. But while many of the conference goers came for the countless workshops and training sessions, there was also a lot of debate as well.


Most of the keynote speeches discussed the need for Ontario to use more inclusive and citizen-centric technologies. Issues such as cloud computing, open source, and Web 2.0 were all heavily debated topics in the conference corridors.


One very active conference attendee was David Nicholl, the province’s corporate chief information and information technology officer. He sat down with ComputerWorld Canada after the show to weigh in on some of Showcase Ontario’s most hotly debated issues.
ComputerWorld Canada: The theme at Showcase Ontario seemed to be the need for government to rise up to today’s challenges, deliver innovative, and make it easier for citizens and businesses to deal with the government and vice versa. How are you guys working to meet this priority?


David Nicholl: We developed a strategy plan two years ago, based on delivering more citizen-centric as well as seamless e-government services. We’re looking at a one window approach — whether businesses or citizens — where they don’t have to look at 27 different ministries, they can actually look at one government which is providing great services that both citizens and businesses can feel pretty confident in.


A great example is the Modernizing Ontario Systems for Tax Administration. It’s a multi-year project and probably the largest business transformation and IT transformation projects we’ve run over the last couple of years. What it does is provide businesses with a simple one window access, one toll free number, a single business identifier for them, as well as 24/7 access for self-serve options.


It’s allowing them to spend a lot less time in navigating their way through layers of government and ministries and really focus on what they should be doing — business.


We’ve also done the newborn registration service, where parents can register their births online, and at the same time — even though it’s cross jurisdictional — they can actually apply for their social insurance number.


So, we’re traversing all three levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal.


CWC: What about other initiatives you expect to see in the future?


David: Another area of interest is supporting communication and collaboration, and really looking at how we’re going to use Web 2.0 going forward. Our desire is to communicate more directly with businesses and citizens and perhaps rely a little bit less on traditional media.


We’re transforming all of our Web sites into a common look and feel. We’re also consolidating the number of citizen facing Web sites down. There are probably upwards of 200 Web sites right now that citizens could access. What we’re trying to do is get it down to basically the number of ministries we have.


So if you want to come in via a ministry, you can still do that. Or you can come through an event, whether it be a birth, death, marriage, whatever it happens to be. You don’t necessarily have to know your ministry, you can come by service and that’s really where Service Ontario comes into its own, where it’s providing that single portal for all government services.


The strategy is no wrong door, but to simplify the means for people to get to the services they’re looking for.


CWC: When talking about Web 2.0, it seems like it’s easier to implement that type of functionality internally between departments, and within the government. But when you’re trying to get the citizens to come on-board and interact with the government, it seems to be a more difficult challenge. Is that something that needs to be addressed?


David: It does need to be addressed, but there are still quite large potential policy concerns, such as those relating to privacy. We are cautiously treading into that world with some small scale pilots, one of which was the Digital Ontario pilot, to test out the tools and test out the different channels of how we can engage with citizens while still protecting privacy.


We are being cautious, but we are starting to engage, so we can get used to it, our stakeholders can get used to it, and to ensure that privacy concerns are addressed and dealt with.


CWC: Tell me about IT Source and some of the ways it can prevent Ontario from losing the skills and knowledge of contract workers when they leave the government.


David: This is an organization we’ve set up internally to reduce our reliance on expensive IT consulting services and also to make sure we retain knowledge, especially during development projects when we have to go through sustainment.


The organization is staffed by OPS employees, they’ve got commonly needed I&IT skills that we can then deploy to various IT projects across the government. We’ve basically converted a number of required consultants into full-time equivalent positions. The group includes project managers, analysts, architects, and developers.


We run them as a recovery, so there’s no budget for them within IT Source. The project pays for them just as they would pay for an external resource.


We’re just getting started. It’s an extraordinarily important for us.


But I have to say that we don’t want to ever get to the point where we’re staffed beyond a sustainable number, so we’ve been very careful to ensure that the number of people we put in there are always able to be deployed. We can’t carry a bench, we have to always have those people working all the time.


CWC: Some governments around the world have been looking at cloud computing. Notably, this has been pushed by the U.S.’s new CIO and in the City of Los Angeles, they’re actually moving some of their office applications to Google Apps. What are you’re thoughts on cloud computing and are we ever going to see any of that used in the Ontario government?


David: Internal cloud computing, absolutely. We will embrace the technologies as they come along and change what our existing world looks like. In the office environment, as it makes sense to change the way we host internally those types of applications and if there are technologies we can take advantage of to more efficiently and effectively distribute office apps out to the OPS, then we would absolutely embrace that.


Going external would certainly give me more cause to pause. I think that the data that we hold is entrusted to us and we spend a lot of time ensuring that our data is secure and held private and we hold accountability for that. To move that accountability elsewhere, we would need to think about it an awful lot.


I haven’t personally seen in Canada, large scale data centres from an Amazon or a Google. Everything we’ve seen so far is based out of the U.S. and we will certainly never host our data in the U.S.


CWC: That’s what the new data centre in Guelph is for, right?


David: We’re undertaking a build of a data centre, you’re absolutely quite right. We have an existing data centre in Toronto’s Downsview area. It’s an old building. We made a proposal a couple of years ago to invest in a new data centre through the government’s new Alternative Financing Program.


We’ve put in a 30,000 square foot computer floor. It’s a tier four data centre, which is about the highest tier data centre you can get. We’re one of five in the world of that caliber. It’s also been built to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard.


We’ve take delivery in April 2010 and we’re working on a very aggressive transition plan of between two and three years to move 2,000 applications that we have running in Downsview and transition them over to Guelph.


It’s a massive program for us with a massive reward at the end. It’s a much more efficient, secure and environmentally friendly building that also allows us to expand. That’s our future and that’s where we’ll base our cloud from.

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